Opinion L.A.

Observations and provocations
from The Times' Opinion staff

Category: Environmental Policy

Cheap coal? Tell that to the dead miners' families

President Obama in Oklahoma
The Obama administration announced new EPA rules Tuesday that sharply limit the output of carbon dioxide emissions from new power plants.

And not surprisingly, the mining industry objected.

"Requiring coal-based power plants to meet an emissions standard based on natural gas technology is a policy overtly calculated to destroy a significant portion of America's electricity supply," said Hal Quinn, chief executive of the National Mining Assn. "This proposal is the latest convoy in EPA's regulatory train wreck that is rolling across America, crushing jobs and arresting our economic recovery at every stop. It is not an 'all of the above' energy strategy." 

Of course, what Quinn doesn't want to talk about is what types of jobs the EPA rules are "crushing."

To get a better idea of that, you need to read another Times story Tuesday, one headlined "Report: Safety agency failed to enforce laws at deadly mine."

That story tells of the regulatory and safety lapses at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, where an explosion in 2010 killed 29 coal miners and seriously injured two others.

It's a story of lax regulatory enforcement, of inspectors simply not doing their jobs, and of a mine operator that, as the Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration said in a report on the deadly incident, engaged in  "systematic, intentional and aggressive efforts ... to avoid compliance with safety and health standards, and to thwart detection of that non-compliance by federal and state regulators."

How bad were conditions at the mine?  Bad enough that "Alpha Natural Resources, the company that acquired Massey Energy Co. after the explosion, reached a settlement late last year with the Department of Justice in which it agreed to pay a record $209 million in compensation and fines and federal prosecutors agreed not to pursue criminal charges against the company," according to The Times' story.

Even so, some former officials at the mine are under criminal indictment. 

Last month, prosecutors charged the then-superintendent of the mine with conspiring with others to block federal regulators from enforcing safety requirements -- a charge that suggests other individuals are likely targets of action as well.

Prosecutors allege that the former superintendent altered the mine’s ventilation system while an inspector was taking an air sample and ordered that a monitor be rewired so that mining could continue despite elevated levels of methane.

What industry spokesman Quinn also didn't talk about is that EPA regulations would apply only to new power plants, and that, as The Times story said, "the proposed regulations further bolster a trend that the power industry began years ago, as more utilities replaced aging coal-fired plants with new natural gas plants. Very few new coal plants are now on the drawing boards."

Coal is a relatively cheap power source, but it's only really cheap if you ignore the costs in lost lives mining it and the health effects from burning it, not to mention the environmental costs from digging it up.

As The Times story concludes:

"[W]hat this essentially says is we will never be building dirty old coal plants ever again," said Michael Brune of the Sierra Club, one of the litigants in the lawsuit that led to the development of the new rules. "The dominant power source of the 19th and 20th centuries won’t be built the same again."

This isn't about "crushing" jobs.

This is about progress. And it's time to move on.


Candidates go PG-13 on the press

Gov. Brown's tax-the-rich pitch looks like a winner

Did an open mic catch Obama making promises to Russia?

-- Paul Whitefield

Photo: President Obama speaks about energy on March 22 at a TransCanada pipe yard near Cushing, Okla. Credit: Larry W. Smith / EPA

Red meat will kill you? Stick a fork in me, I'm done!

Red meat is linked to premature death
You can have my steak when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers.

I hate to be politically incorrect, but that's my, well, gut reaction to a study released Monday that says eating any amount of red meat increases one's risk of premature death.

Now mind you, it's not that I don't believe the study. Its lead author is a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health, and only really smart people get into Harvard. And it's not as though the researchers weren't thorough: They looked at the eating habits and the health of more than 110,000 adults for more than 20 years. Which, on a scale of boring tasks, certainly tops the homework in the geology class that I took in college.

But first I read this -- "adding just one 3-ounce serving of unprocessed red meat ... to one's daily diet was associated with a 13% greater chance of dying during the course of the study" -- and I think, wow, I'm pretty sure that just two bites of that T-bone I had last month were more than 3 ounces.

Then I read this -- "Even worse, adding an extra daily serving of processed red meat, such as a hot dog or two slices of bacon, was linked to a 20% higher risk of death during the study" -- and I think, that probably means the bacon-wrapped hot dogs I had for lunch last week should've killed me by now. (To give me some credit, I skipped the onions and the fries; perhaps that's why I'm still walking around.)

Also, this part moves me not at all: "Eating a serving of nuts instead of beef or pork was associated with a 19% lower risk of dying during the study. The team said choosing poultry or whole grains as a substitute was linked with a 14% reduction in mortality risk; low-fat dairy or legumes, 10%; and fish, 7%."

Well, I had peanuts on Saturday afternoon. It didn't make me glad it wasn't steak; it made me think of being on an airliner. Then I had sushi on Saturday night. It made me think of fishing.

But here's the part of the study that has me really puzzled:

The Harvard researchers hypothesized that eating red meat would also be linked to an overall risk of death from any cause. ... And the results suggest they were right: Among the 37,698 men and 83,644 women who were tracked, as meat consumption increased, so did mortality risk.

Which means what, exactly? If I grill a nice New York strip on Sunday, that increases my chances of being hit by a bus on Monday?

Granted, I didn't go to Harvard, but that seems like a stretch. Or maybe it's just that all the red meat is killing my brain cells, in addition to clogging my arteries (and making me more likely to die in an airplane accident).

Probably a lot of people are going to have fun with this story. They may even ignore the more salient points, among them that at least cutting down on the consumption of red meat is good for your health and good for the planet.

But sorry, Harvard, my bottom line remains: As a red-blooded, red-meat-eating American, I just can't stomach a future that doesn't include a juicy rib-eye.


Japan's 1,000-year-old warning

The Ghent Altarpiece, as never before

Sherwood Rowland, the scientist who saved the world 

-- Paul Whitefield

Photo credit: William Thomas Cain / Getty Images

What Sherwood Rowland taught us about science, and the Earth

Sherwood RowlandGood thing Sherry Rowland was working 40 years ago instead of now.

Otherwise, he might not have won the Nobel Prize, and we might all be a lot closer to dead -– as individuals, as a species and as a planet.

If UC Irvine chemist F. Sherwood Rowland, who passed away Saturday, had been starting his work now on how chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, damage the Earth's protective ozone layer, it might be getting the same kind of manipulated skepticism and politically cynical slamming that global climate change now receives.

As it was, Rowland had to battle and scrap for his carefully researched warnings to be believed, but within 15 years of publishing his findings, the nations of the world -- the United States among them -- agreed to phase out CFCs. Believe it or not, manufacturers had stopped using them even before the Montreal Protocol was signed.

The Nobel committee, in honoring Rowland and co-discoverer Mario Molina, said their work may have "saved the world from catastrophe." These guys should have been wearing Spandex superhero suits, for what their work accomplished.

In 1990, with the inspiration of C. Boyden Gray, who worked in both the Reagan and the George H.W. Bush administrations, a cap-and-trade law was up and running to control acid rain. But when it comes to global climate change, the current GOP generation mocks this market-driven solution as "cap and tax." 

I interviewed Rowland a couple of times, most recently half a dozen years ago, when the neo-paleo-anti-science crowd was in full-court press as naysayers on human-generated global climate change. Legitimate scientists with nuanced questions about data and formulas being used were lumped in with random cranks as "proof" that the body of scientific evidence is wrong and that science is no more than just another untrustworthy special-interest group.

Rowland told me he did get his share of attacks in the 1970s. You might say that. Radio Free Europe reported that a trade publication called Aerosol Age suggested he was a Soviet KGB agent, and DuPont took out full-page newspaper ads to question his chops.

Almost 20 years after his Nobel Prize, Rowland told me that "the planet is in for a rough century as we try to put together substitutes for the energy that we need in order to prevent very substantial climate change coming from rapidly rising temperatures."

Yet like global climate change, many of the obstacles to fixing our problems also look to be man-made. As I wrote a few years ago, the public doesn't like it when scientists engage in discussions that politicians recast as political, not scientific, and it doesn't like it when scientists detach themselves from "real world" concerns. Rowland remembered a sci-fi story from the 1950s, about a comet imperiling the Earth. Inside a lab, scientists were clamoring for a peek into a spectroscope; outside the lab window, people were getting fried by radiation right in their wingtips.

Rowland's work on CFCs and ozone was a model, just like the world's political response to it.

And in spite of the dire warnings that banning CFCs would tank the economy, guess what: American know-how and technology came up with an alternative, business embraced it and, whatever the dire warnings, our armpits don't stink, we still have spray paint and we've maybe bought the ozone layer up there a few more centuries.

If we down here don't mess our second second chance.


Obama's pump debacle

Refighting California's water war

To catch a Kony, cash won't cut it

Sherwood Rowland, the scientist who saved the world

--Patt Morrison

Photo: Sherwood Rowland is seen in 1989. He died at his Corona Del Mar home on March 10. He was 84. Credit: University of California Irvine / AP Photo

Sherwood Rowland, the scientist who saved the world

F. Sherwood Rowland
It's not often you can say that someone saved the world -- and mean it literally.

But that's the case with F. Sherwood Rowland. The UC Irvine chemist, who died Saturday at 85, was one of three scientists who won the 1995 Nobel Prize in chemistry, The Times reported, for their work "explaining how chlorofluorocarbons, ubiquitous substances once used in an array of products from spray deodorant to industrial solvents, could destroy the ozone layer, the protective atmospheric blanket that screens out many of the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays."

In hindsight, it seems straightforward: Bad stuff was eating away a vital part of Earth's environment. So get rid of it.

But it wasn't so simple in 1974, when Rowland and fellow scientist Mario Molina published their concerns in the journal Nature.

As The Times says, the findings "were met with scorn by the chemical industry and even by many scholars. For a decade, Rowland and Molina persevered to prove their hypothesis, publishing numerous scientific papers and speaking to sometimes hostile audiences at scientific conferences. It took almost 15 years for the international scientific community and chemical industry to accept the pair's findings."

Hmmm, starting to remind you of a little something called "climate change," is it?

But here's something of a vital difference between the ozone debate and the current climate change one:

Manufacturers began to phase out chlorofluorocarbons in the late 1980s, prompted by the discovery of an ozone "hole" over Antarctica that formed each winter in response to weather conditions and the falling worldwide levels of ozone. The Montreal Protocol, a landmark international agreement to phase out CFC products, was signed by the United States and other nations in 1987.

The protocol was proof that nations could unite to address common environmental threats, Rowland contended. "People have worked together to solve the problem," he said.

Rowland was right then.  Nations did unite to address a common environmental threat.

But have we taken that lesson to heart?  Will we accept the scientific consensus on climate change and work together to save the planet?   

Or will it continue to be a political football, at least in the United States, where too many politicians are opting for short-term partisan gains at the risk of the planet's future?

Donald Blake, a colleague of Rowland’s at UC Irvine, told The Times that Rowland considered the phase-out of CFCs his greatest achievement.

It would be a shame if Rowland won the ozone battle -- but the rest of us lost the war for Earth’s survival.


Is that a fracking earthquake?

Japan's 1,000-year-old warning

'Obamacare' plaintiff Brown's bankruptcy: Instant karma? 

--Paul Whitefield

Photo: F. Sherwood Rowland, shown in his UC Irvine lab.  Credit: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

Is that a fracking earthquake?

Environmentalists: Prepare to be shaken up. It turns out that hydraulic fracturing, a.k.a. fracking, a.k.a. the latest fossil fuel industry outrage to be perpetrated on planet Earth, isn't just a menace because it may be contaminating groundwater. It also can cause earthquakes.

Ohio oil and gas regulators said Friday that a preliminary report on the relationship between a fracking waste disposal well near Youngstown and a series of minor earthquakes in northeastern Ohio last year found evidence "strongly indicating the Youngstown-area earthquakes were induced." What the frack does this mean? In addition to giving anti-frackers something else to complain about, it means companies drilling for natural gas will probably face a host of new regulatory restrictions aimed at ensuring they don't do anything earth shattering in the future. In Ohio, regulators announced a series of new rules for disposing of and transporting brine, a waste product from fracking, and they're likely to spread.

That's not a bad thing. But before greens who aim to restrict or ban fracking get too worked up about this new entry to the list of its dangers, they should consider that very similar risks also apply to another energy source considered by many -- including Al Gore and President Obama -- to be among the world's great hopes of fending off climate change and weaning us off fossil fuels: geothermal.

The principles involved in fracking and geothermal power production are similar: In both cases, one drills deep into the earth and injects water (combined with other chemicals, in the case of fracking) into fissures. Geothermal energy is produced when hot rock turns the water to steam, which returns to the surface and is used to turn generators. In fracking, the chemicals are used to force natural gas to the surface. Very little seismic activity has been attributed to the process of fracking itself, but things get more dangerous around disposal wells such as the one in Ohio, in which the waste water or brine from fracking is dispensed with by being reinjected, and far more liquid is involved.

In his book "Our Choice," Al Gore says of geothermal energy, "Like solar energy and wind power, geothermal energy could -- if properly developed -- match all of the energy from coal, gas and oil combined." Obama's stimulus package, meanwhile, contained $350 million for development of geothermal projects. It's easy to see what they're so heated up about. Unlike wind and solar power, whose generation stops when the sun goes down or the wind stops blowing, the Earth's magma is always hot, and geothermal power production emits only steam. But it turns out that when you inject water into hot fissures, it cracks them, and deep underground shifts can cause considerable surface rumbling. After a major geothermal project in Basel, Switzerland, had to be shut down because it caused quakes that rattled that city in 2009, one of the nation's biggest projects to pursue the technology (located near my hometown of Santa Rosa) was tabled. The company behind it, AltaRock Energy, is now carrying out experiments in a sparsely populated area in central Oregon instead.

Regulators are right to insist on maximum standards to protect the public from such risky practices, and it's a very good idea to hold off on major projects until more is known about the science. But those who seek to ban fracking because of its earthquake risks should consider the more beneficial technologies they may be quashing. Geothermal power has vast potential, but until we get to a cleaner future, we're going to need more natural gas as a transitional fuel. Pursuing both is richly worthwhile, if it can be done safely.


When big business and human rights collide

Michael Mann's counterstrike in the climate wars

The energy industry's disturbing influence on politics

-- Dan Turner

Photo: Environmentalists rally against fracking in Albany, N.Y., in January. Credit: Mike Groll / Associated Press

Michael Mann's counterstrike in the climate wars

Michael-MannClimate change may have dropped off the national political agenda, but unfortunately that doesn't mean the problem has gone away. As of January, the Earth's atmosphere contained 393 parts per million of carbon dioxide. And rising.

To understand why that's a very sad number, it helps to know that from the dawn of human civilization until the 19th century, the concentration was about 275 parts per million, and that many scientists believe 350 parts per million is a sort of tipping point: Irreversible impacts and feedback loops start to kick in, and the cost of repairing the resulting damage from such things as sea-level rise and droughts not only skyrockets, the cost of adapting to the changes does too. But we've already sailed past that point. And we're heading inexorably toward another one that's far worse: 450 parts per million, the truly scary level at which 3.5 degrees of warming above pre-industrial global average temperatures is locked in. The predicted result: centuries of weather extremes, drought-fueled global famine, mass migration, the vanishing of low-lying islands and territories as sea ice melts away, wide-scale species extinction and other horrors too numerous and depressing to list.

To global warming denialists, the above paragraph constitutes the "alarmist" perspective on climate change. Never mind that it is backed by a wealth of research, the world's most state-of-the-art climate models (whose accuracy in predicting the recent effects of climate change has been repeatedly demonstrated), the national science academies  of the world's developed nations (including the U.S. National Academies), the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, among other prominent academic and scientific organizations. To the denial set, these groups and individual scientists are part of a global liberal cabal that is scheming to impose its radical environmentalist agenda on the entire planet via government programs to cut carbon emissions; as proof, denialists point to their own research and studies -- typically funded by fossil fuel interests, performed by non-climatologists and published in non-peer-reviewed journals -- that pick away at the scientific consensus. You wouldn't think such an anti-intellectual and grossly irresponsible movement would have much success in the court of public opinion. You would be horrifyingly wrong....

Continue reading »

Newt Gingrich says, ''Hola, L.A.''

Newt Gingrich
California Republicans and Latino voters have had a rough patch in their relationship for, oh, going on 20 years now –- ever since Proposition 187, the vast anti-illegal immigration ballot measure, parted the political waters and estranged many California Latinos from the Republican party for a generation.

This week, into this complicated history and this Latino-heavy part of California, came Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and GOP presidential candidate, to raise money and raise some support for his campaign among Latinos.

There were a couple of points during Gingrich's whirlwind visit that surprised me -- surprised that perhaps Gingrich, a former history professor and now a student of Spanish, hadn't done all his homework.

The event at a South El Monte restaurant was billed as a "Hispanic Leadership Event." Maybe that’s the word they use in Eastern time zones -– Georgia, Gingrich’s home state, has a Hispanic Chamber of Commerce -– but in these parts, the term "Latino" is far and away more common and even preferred.

And then, also at the South El Monte event, Gingrich reiterated his pledge to kill the Environmental Protection Agency, as a job-killer "with no sense of responsibility."

South El Monte is at the heart of a major Superfund cleanup site, a place where the groundwater was contaminated over decades with industrial solvents. As recently as last year, several companies that owned or ran operations there have agreed to pay a total of $13 million toward the federal cleanup, with several more such claims pending.


Dogs to Mitt: We are not luggage!

Straight-shooting Republicans keep hitting themselves in the foot

Santorum blames his wife for his criticism of those radical feminists

-- Patt Morrison

Photo: GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich meets with Latino supporters during a campaign stop at a Mexican restaurant in South El Monte. Credit: Los Angeles Times / February 13, 2012

Florida's Burmese pythons: Will they make a meal out of (gulp) us?

Python versus alligator
Darn those illegal immigrants. Enough is enough.  They have to go.

They're wiping out Florida's bunnies!

Of course you know what I'm talking about: Burmese pythons.

As The Times reported this week:

In a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, researchers report that the giant snakes have put a serious dent in the Everglades’ usual ecosystem, devouring the wide array of animals that live there….

The latest report is based on nocturnal field surveys. Before 2000, mammals were frequently encountered, but in the newer surveys, covering 2003 to 2011, the number of observed mammals  dropped significantly. There was a 99.3% decrease in raccoon observations; opossum observations were down 98.9%; and bobcat observations were off by 87.5%. Scientists said they failed to detect rabbits at all.

That's right.  No more Bugs, no more Thumper.


And that's not all. Florida's problem may be snakes the size of fire hoses, but California is not immune from intrepid interlopers.Albatross released

Take this story Tuesday:

A man was driving down a Los Angeles street Friday when onlookers flagged him down, alerting him to an enormous bird that had hitched a ride in the back of his pickup truck.

With its white body, dark wings and curved yellow beak, it might have been mistaken for an oversized seagull.

But the bird, it turns out, was thousands of miles from home. It was an Laysan Albatross, a seabird with a 7-foot wingspan that normally nests on remote islands and atolls in the North Pacific Ocean.

That's right. Apparently Hawaii and environs had lost their allure for Jonathan Livingston uh, Albatross. So, like thousands of other undocumented types, it apparently stowed away on a ship and headed for the Golden State.

But, just like the Obama administration's tough line on deportations, officials took a tough-love approach.

International Bird Rescue took custody of the bird after the driver handed it over to lifeguards at Cabrillo Beach. The group held the albatross for four days at its wildlife rescue center in San Pedro and gave it a clean bill of health.

On Tuesday they released the bird from a boat off San Pedro to let it set off on a flight back home to Hawaii or beyond.

Aloha, albatross!

Of course, the bird came here, in its own odd way, naturally.  The Burmese pythons that are using the Everglades as an all-you-can-eat buffet are apparently descended from pets that were either lost or released into the wild.

And personally, I don't think officials are taking the problem seriously enough. 

For example, here's what the scientists are saying:

"Whether mammal populations will remain suppressed or will rebound remains to be seen. The magnitude of these declines underscores the apparent incredible density of pythons in [Everglades National Park] and justifies intensive investigation into how the addition of novel apex predators affects overall ecosystem processes."

Run that by me again: "intensive investigation into how the addition of novel apex predators affects overall ecosystem processes"?

How about: "How are we going to stop these snakes from eating people?"

Because isn't that bound to happen?  A snake that's willing to make a meal out of an alligator probably wouldn't be shy about latching onto Junior, now would it?

Lots of folks in the West are freaked out these days about wolves.  Shouldn't we be equally concerned about these pythons, which aren't even native to the United States?

A few wayward seabirds turning up on the West Coast, no big deal. A snake that will eat just about anything? 

To borrow from the astronauts:  "Florida, we have a problem."


Feasting on junk info

Are college students learning?

Food stamps and the right to make unhealthy decisions

--Paul Whitefield

Photos, from top: A Burmese python is wrapped around an American alligator in Everglades National Park, Fla. (Credit:  Lori Oberhofer / National Park Service); a Laysan albatross is released back to the wild. (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

Redistricting: Watts new?

Maps-bWhat's the opposite of "I told you so"? Because whatever it is, I need to say it about the draft map proposals released Wednesday by the Los Angeles City Council Redistricting Commission. Blogging on the recently concluded special election in Council District 15, I said there was just no way that Watts was ever going to be severed from the distant harbor.

But except for gaining or losing a few blocks at the far northern end, where Watts joins South Los Angeles and the central city, Council District 15 doesn't change. It can't, and it won't, because it has nowhere else to go. It's fenced in by the harbor on the south and the very strange shape of the city boundaries from there northward. Unless more territory is annexed to or detached from Los Angeles, this district will look pretty much the same in 50 years as it does today.

Never mind. The proposed map moves Watts out of the 15th and makes it part of a Council District 9, which traditionally takes in most of downtown but now would go only as far north as Olympic Boulevard.

Is that good or bad? It's different, and it could be good, although I'd be interested to know what Watts residents think. I suspect that many of them might like to finally be severed from San Pedro, the harbor community that always controls the election of the 15th District council member because it's where most of the money and most of the votes reside.

Every council member from that district, going back at least to World War II, has been a San Pedro resident. And it must be extraordinarily hard for the District 15 members not to promote the interests of their neighborhood and its very distinct demographic -- families with roots in fishing, shipping, loading, unloading and moving freight, largely white with a strong Italian, Croatian and Greek ethnic identity -- as opposed to Watts, with its distinct history and largely African American and Latino immigrant demographic, as well as environmental degradation, dense public housing problems and persistent gang crime.

Of course, not every community can have its own district. Communities must be joined with others that are like them -- or very unlike them. So would Watts now instead be pushed around by wealthy and gentrified downtown?

Perhaps not. The Bunker Hill and Flower Street office towers would be excluded, as would most of the 1920s bank buildings that are now condos and apartments. A lot of the conversation is going to focus on how the northern two-thirds of downtown would now be united as part of the same 14th District that includes Boyle Heights and far-away Eagle Rock. But the 9th District, in addition to Watts, would include downtown's Staples Center, L.A. Live and, assuming it gets built, Farmers Field football stadium.

So is this now the Anschutz Entertainment Group district, and will Watts now become the afterthought of AEG, instead of remaining the afterthought of the Port of Los Angeles? Could the AEG connection be better leveraged to help fund improvements in Watts?

Don't know the answer yet. Let's watch and listen.


Watts and Not-Watts

Planned remapping of  L.A. City Council districts draws fire

INTERACTIVE MAP: Current and proposed Los Angeles City Council districts

--Robert Greene

Energy: Activists wring blood from a Keystone

Don't believe anybody who tells you today's decision by President Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline was about protecting the environment or destroying American jobs. It was about politics, pure and simple -- and that goes not just for Obama, but the environmentalists, conservatives and fossil-fuel interests that have been using the issue to press their agendas, and are likely to keep flogging that horse through November.

Despite all the gnashing of teeth and beating of breasts over this pipeline, it would have had a tiny impact on either the economy or the environment. With all due respect to NASA scientist James Hansen, who is still one of the nation's most prescient thinkers when it comes to climate change, he was badly off-base when he claimed that if Keystone were built it would be "game over" in the fight against global warming. That's because failing to build the pipeline, which would carry oil from Alberta's tar sands to refineries on Texas' Gulf Coast, won't make the tar sands go away, and probably won't even do much to slow their development.

Tar sands oil is only slightly dirtier than the crude we're already burning, and if the Canadians can't sell it easily in the U.S. they'll just ship it to China. In other words, trying to stop or even slow the consumption of dirty, carbon-intense fossil fuels by attacking their distribution sources is a waste of time, because producers will just find other distribution sources or customers. Environmental activists would have been far better off fighting for a carbon-pricing scheme rather than fighting against Keystone XL, which is a symptom of the carbon problem but not a cause.

And with all due respect to my colleague Paul Whitefield, who sees the Costa Concordia cruise-ship sinking as a reminder that pipelines such as Keystone can fail, the recent maritime disaster actually points to the opposite conclusion. Yes, pipelines do leak, but spills from pipelines tend to be small and easily contained, unlike spills from oil tankers such as the Exxon Valdez. From an environmental standpoint, it's better to get the stuff from Canada via pipeline than Venezuela via tanker.

Conservatives, meanwhile, are just as deluded about Keystone. As Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Michael Levi points out in the Washington Post, the oil industry's claims that the project would produce 250,000 jobs are a fantasy, and the notion that it would significantly reduce global oil prices is nonsensical. There would be some minor economic benefits from building the thing, but nothing game-changing.

The real story of Keystone is the scoring of political points. Congressional Republicans think they put a few on the board when they attached a rider to the two-month extension of the payroll tax cut that forced the Obama administration to either approve or reject the pipeline by Feb. 21. That wasn't enough time to complete environmental and safety reviews of the project, which cuts through sensitive water tables in Nebraska and other states. So President Obama was left with little choice but to reject it, thus giving the GOP new ammunition for its claims that Obama's extremist environmental policies are destroying American jobs. Obama, meanwhile, gets to at least shore up support among his base, who for some reason see the Keystone fight as being far more significant than it really is.

The good news is, nothing has really been resolved when it comes to Keystone. Pipeline developer TransCanada can still reapply for a permit, and no doubt it will do so when the heat from this year's election season has dissipated. As for the political fallout, Obama did the right thing for the country by waiting until all the studies of potential risks and environmental impacts are completed; whether he did the right thing for his reelection chances will be clearer later.


Burning America's future

Deepwater Horizon's missed lessons

Congress' 10 biggest enemies of the Earth

--Dan Turner

Photo: Activists at a November protest against Keystone XL in Washington. Credit: Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg



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The Opinion L.A. blog is the work of Los Angeles Times Editorial Board membersNicholas Goldberg, Robert Greene, Carla Hall, Jon Healey, Sandra Hernandez, Karin Klein, Michael McGough, Jim Newton and Dan Turner. Columnists Patt Morrison and Doyle McManus also write for the blog, as do Letters editor Paul Thornton, copy chief Paul Whitefield and senior web producer Alexandra Le Tellier.

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